Jemal Ramirez is music educator and musician in the San Jose, CA area.
Jemal Ramirez has studied music with Greg Christiansen, Greg D'Augeli, Greg Hutchinson, Victoria Neve, David Xiques, Akira Tana, Reggie Workman, Benny Green, Adam Nussbaum, Andrew Speight, Robert Busan, Matthew Clark, Howard Wiley, David Ewell, Mark Levine, Joshua Redman, Marcus Shelby, Danna Mitchell, David Brigham, Vivian Bordreaux, Kevin Deibert, Chris Shahin, Sameer Gupta, Dave Rosenthal, Derek Johnson, Darren Tunstall, Phil Woods, Margaret Durando, Brian Blade, Eric Reed, Eddie Marshall and countless others.
My Jazz Story
Music Lover From Day One. I Want To Be The Bach Of The Drums.
My earliest memories go back to me in my bedroom (I was about 4 maybe 5), with a
portable tape recorder, adult-sized over-the-ear headphones, a box of my dad’s tapes,
chewed up drumsticks, and this drum set. This was the first drum set that my mom,
Deanna Tafoya, bought for me at a garage sale. I remember having two drum sets to
choose from. I had a connection with this drum set for some reason; well, I was born in
the year of the tiger (1974).
But my story with drums and music, actually starts a bit earlier. My father, Alfred Ramirez,
played music. In fact, me, my mom and dad all drove from California to as far away as
Colorado while I was only six months old. My dad played in a band that played small
clubs and hotels. We drove there in an old Dodge van. It had no insulation, just a white
tin can big enough to sleep in, I assume. I bet my mom thought we would die out in that
cold Colorado winter weather.
Eventually, me and my mom came home, and dad would go on to Michigan before he got
a local job to raise me and my brother in Merced, California, where me, my mom and
brother were born. Growing up in an old world kind of town gave me plenty to do. My
neighborhood had many kids my age to play with. My dad had started a job that required
long hours of him. I always knew there was something else that my dad should be doing,
but it wasn’t until years later that I realized he decided to give up his dream of a career in
music for my family. He never talked about that and I never asked him about it.
I did understand, at the age of 3, that when my dad got home from his day job, he loved
to play the drums. Especially while he played along to his music on the stereo. He would
play along to Earth, Wind and Fire; Chicago; Spyro Gyro; Weather Report; Billy Cobham;
and Tower of Power. He would also play in local bands for a while until he became bored
and even resentful of playing music that he was not interested in. So he got a really nice
stereo that he could play the latest music in the jazz and pop world that would keep him
interested. Later on (10 years plus) he would come to my bedroom to play along to Ralph
Moore albums, with Kenny Washington and Victor Lewis on drums and my first nice full
rack Marantz stereo I bought from Sears on a monthly payment plan.
I say his music, because, well, that’s what my mom called it. She liked listening to the
radio. My mom loved listening to the music of the day. In fact, I think she probably to this
day, is more connected to mainstream music than I am. In middle school, I loved listening
to Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Hall and Oates, Bobby Brown, Tina Turner, Mister
Mr. That was my mom’s influence. Plus she was the one who would take me to all my
band competitions, practices and performances. She was the one who would convince
my dad that it would be okay for me to go into music as a profession.
An amazing thing that happened to me at the start of my middle school life was my
mothers’ decision to move me to a school out of our neighborhood (Rivera). She wanted
me to study music with Shirley Hazelton, the band director at Rivera Middle School. I
think my mother said that my babysitter lived across the street from Rivera and that was
that. I had Mrs. Hazelton for four years.
During that time I learned how to make music with other 10- and 11-year-olds. I
remember feeling very strange in a class of so many young people. There was probably
50 of us in this beginning fifth grade band. Up until that point, music was a very natural
thing for me. I never thought much about reading music, or what the music experience
would have been like as band member who played a trumpet or saxophone. Mrs.
Hazleton was easy going on us percussionists, but she never let the band slack off.
Luckily, I made a good friend in Scott Harris. We met in the fifth grade band. I noticed
right away that he seemed to know some stuff about reading music and playing the
drums. I was right, his older brother Spencer (10 years older) played drums, I think for the
Disneyland Collegiate Band. Scott and I quickly became good friends. We ate lunch
together everyday in middle school and played drums in Mrs. Hazelton’s band. She was a
real task master, though she loved Scott and me. She let me and Scott improvise parts
some of the time, I mean we both knew more about drums and music than the typical
beginning band percussionist. He and I played drums together in school band all the way
through high school.
In high school, I remember right away feeling amazing. My high school band director
(Greg Christiansen) called me during the summer before my ninth grade year to try out on
marching tenor drums. We all had to audition for him at the end of our eighth grade year.
I remember playing a marching band percussion solo arrangement of the Sonny Rollins
tune “St. Thomas.” I knew he caught me improvising, but he didn’t say anything then.
When he brought me in to audition later that summer, he asked me to play the drum
competition piece that our high school was playing my freshman year. He watched me
like a hawk, standing directly behind me so I knew he was watching both me and the
music. That was one of the most intense one hours I spent on music reading up to that
point. He kept telling me, I was changing the rhythm. That’s what I’ve always done. I’d
figure out what the music needed from the sheet music and listening to my band and I
wouldn’t stop at the music in front of me, I invented/improvised that I heard.
Luckily, at the high school I met more young people that would help me learn all of my
rudiments. Their names are Derek Johnson and Darren Tunstall. I used to practice with
those guys for hours, daily. I learned so much about drum corps from them. They could
talk about the Concord Blue Devils and Tom Float for hours. They knew all the guys’
names in that group and would talk about them like they knew them personally. This was
so new for me. At home during that period, I stopped playing the drum set. I got a
homemade practice pad and a copy of the George Lawrence Stone books, “Stick Control
and Accents and Rebounds”. Soon I was in their club of serious drum corp drumming.
At the end of that year, on a last-minute invitation, my band director took me and Derek
to Kimball’s East in Emeryville to see a Freddie Hubbard jazz concert. In the band was
Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Marshall and Jeff Chambers. This was in March of 1989. My
band director brought us back stage to meet the band. I was so shocked at this
happening both then and even now. The jazz concert was way above my head, even
though I had been exposed to so much music that was related.
Over the next few years, as the drummer for the Merced High School Jazz Band, I met
more young people who had the music bug. Greg Christiansen took a handful of us to
more concerts and wanted us to know more, listen more and play more. He took me to
see The Phil Woods Band, The Jackie McLean Band, The Roy Hargrove Band, The
Harper Brothers Band and The Miles Davis Tribute Band.
On a scholarship from the Merced High School Band Booster in the summer of 1991, I
attended the Stanford Jazz Camp. That was a life-changing experience for me. After
auditioning for Adam Nussbaum and Jeff Ballard, I got into a top jazz combo. I got to
study under Reggie Workman for that week. I remember my high school director making
a big deal about Reggie a year earlier when our high school jazz band competed at the
national jazz competition in Oakland Music Fest. I know today, that spending that one
week with Reggie gave me a lifetime to think about, study and draw inspiration from. In
that group was another young musician that showed me some cool music that was new
for me: Ravi Coltrane. He played the Wayne Shorter album “Speak No Evil” and the Miles
Davis album “Seven Steps to Heaven” for me. This life change sent me on the Blue Note
records path that we jazz fans and musicians know of.
My next real life change was deciding to study music with as many of the jazz greats who
I could learn from wherever I happened to be, because attending Berklee School of
Music like I wanted seemed too daunting. I did audition for Berklee and of course was
awarded some scholarship money, but it wasn’t enough for me to make the move. I was
still a very young country boy. Going to San Francisco always felt like a busy city, and I
couldn’t imagine a positive outcome moving to the East Coast at that stage of my life. I
moved to Chico, California. Many of my high school friends were there. Derek Johnson,
Scott Harris, Bryan Baca, and Cristi Hinds. It turned out to be a great move for me.
I made more friends who were into jazz and once again learned from my peers naturally, I
imagine the way the early jazz musicians learned together. I once heard the late great
bassist Ray Brown say that when he was coming up, all of his music friends learned the
latest Charlie Parker solos, and before they allowed one another in their “clubhouse” they
would make each other sing that new record/solo. This was what we did at 478
Humboldt Avenue in Chico California. We all listened to the same albums, we turned
each other onto new tunes and musicians. We worked out of real books, we transcribed,
we would travel 3 hours each way to see great jazz musicians that were playing in
Oakland at the original Yoshi’s.
We started a band called The Mo’tets and played many gigs together. It turned out that
Chico was a great place for a young country boy like me. Chico itself is just a bit bigger
than Merced, but I’d have say, more forward thinking. My jazz friends and brothers who
studied this music together, defined my early twenties. John van Berkum, Michael
Newman, Richard Ziegler, Daniel Atkinson, Nate Dreyfus, Jeremy Mauel and our teacher
Greg D’Augelli made our experience like a top music school. I know now, just how lucky I
was moving to Chico and finding a gem of a small town and people to help me continue
toward music making and understanding. I still remember meeting Greg D’Augelli for the
first time at Cafe Phoenix; a little jazz club there. We talked for an hour about jazz players
who I had been to listening to on records. Not only did he know everyone one of them,
but he could name albums that he heard them on, where they were from and who them
learned from. I could tell right away that he was someone I was meant to meet and play
with and learn from.
I was lucky to be playing straight ahead jazz with my friends in Chico but I was also lucky
to be recommended by Dan Kinkle, the jazz drummer and educator at Chico State, sent
me to meet with a fusion group in Redding called After Dark. These guys were great.
They took me under their wings and allowed me to play my big drums, a seven piece set
of Yamaha Recording Customs, that I had just got as a high school graduation present
from my parents, a couple years earlier. This would prove to be a great association for
me to do some early touring/backing up and up-and coming singers in the rock style.
During my Chico days, I kept in touch with Stanford Jazz Workshop and met more people
who would lead me onto my next path. The summer of 1995 I met Greg Hutchinson and
Benny Green. Greg Hutchinson was the youngest drummer on the international jazz
scene whose playing I could identify with and inspired me to dig deeper into the history
of jazz. There was a knowledge of the past that he would speak of, plus he spoke of
current music trends in the mainstream. I learned a lot from the relationship we
developed that summer, that reached into the early 2000’s. Over the time that he was in
town with Ray Brown, Joshua Redman or Diane Reeves I was hanging with Hutch all over
Benny Green was my combo leader that summer of 1995. He talked to our combo as if
we were in a band together. He told us stories. It was a very unique experience. When I
think back to that week, he let us play, but it never really felt like all that much.
Something that I am reminded of today, is that there was a young saxophonist named
Howard Wiley (16 at the time), who was in Benny’s combo. Benny said to me and Howard
that when you play together, later (sort of implying the future) you will get a chance to
stretch out. It was a funny remark to make, because me and Howard had never played
together previously and wouldn’t for about 3 more years to come when I moved to the
San Francisco Bay Area in August of 1998.
Shortly after that summer at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, Wynton Marsalis and The
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra came to Chico to play a concert. By chance, Deric Binyon,
a local Chico trumpeter called me to ask if I could bring my drums for a jam session to
host Wynton’s group at a Restaurant after their concert at Chico State. I bring my drums
and proceed to meet and play with his band. From that jam and telling Greg Hutchinson
about it, a year later I end up going to France with the Eric Reed trio for two weeks as a
house band for the Antibes Jazz Festival house jam session band. From this experience I
get to play with many of the headliners at that festival. I was 21 at the time and Eric Reed
and Ben Wolfe prove to be a mini music school of swing to get my mind and heart
deeper into the shed. One of the musicians I get to meet and learn from that trip and
beyond is Brian Blade.
Upon returning from France, I had a renewed faith in my study of straight ahead jazz
music from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Up to that time, I had split my time listening to the
young jazz musicians whom seemed to be getting much of the attention from the late
1980’s and early 1990’s. But these young players who are 5-15 years older than me had
been listening to the players from 1950’s and 10960’s. So, I found that being in Chico,
where there was a local radio station (KCHO) that played jazz from the Chico State
University gave me a head start to learning this music that Eric Reed had sent me
chasing. I also made a few record store pilgrimages to Berkeley and its’ many record
stores near Cal. I came out with arm loads of CD’s. Those years of the summer between
1996 and summer of 1998 proved to special in my preparation for San Francisco.
In August of 1998, I moved to Albany (North Berkeley) hoping to play jazz music full time.
Earlier that summer, I started calling all the Bay Area musicians I had phone numbers for.
Included in those calls was to David McKinney, bassist I met at Stanford Jazz. At that
time he was playing often with Calvin Keyes. David got me on half a dozen gigs with
Calvin before I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I figured that once I moved to the
Bay, I’d be playing with those guys. As it turned out, my first official gig once I made the
move was with Marcus Shelby and Gabe Eaton. It turns out that I moved to the Bay at
the right time to jump into all of Marcus Shelby’s trio gigs and many of the gigs that
Jaimeo Brown left open. He had just moved to New Jersey.
Marcus Shelby has a limelight in the Bay that few other jazz musicians can touch. During
the three years I played with him I got play many clubs and venues around the SF Bay,
Los Angeles and France. Some of the fine musicians that were also employed by him
while I was with him are, Howard Wiley, Matthew Clark, Dayna Stephens, Ambrose
(Campbell) Akinmusire, Mike Olmos, Rob Barics, Adam Theis, Art Hirahara, Mike Rinta,
Faye Carol, and many others.
Marcus also was able to set up performances with musicians me and musicians not in his
regular working trio or big band. I was able to play with Joshua Redman for several
smaller performances at schools, including Berkeley High School, what is now called the
California Jazz Conservatory. We also played with Darrell Grant, Ledisi, Dmitri Matheny,
Dave Ellis and Reginald Savage Dance Company . During the years of 1998-2001 I only
played music and there was quite a bit of work to go around during this period in the Bay
Area. The Dot-com boom had many young professionals going out to our gigs, throwing
office parties and actively engaging in the local music scene.
Also during this period my life I was lucky enough to gig on a regular basis with great
players in the Bay area that I learned from; including, Bob Kenmotsu, Bishop Norman
Williams, David Ewell, Lukas Vesely, Eric Crystal, Chuck MacKinnon, Mark Levine, Kenny
Brooks and Jeff Chambers. By 2001, the economy had taken a turn for the worst and the
gigs slowed dramatically. In fact, just prior to that, I remember Mark Levine, a longtime
San Franciscan, telling me that he had never witnessed as many gigs in the Bay Area. He
said everyone was working. I was lucky to be a part of this special time in the Bay, when
many of the musicians in my generation were just learning how to play together and we
had great mentors in the area to learn from.
On September 11, 2001 I applied to finish my degree in Music Education at San
Francisco State University. On my first day back at school, I was a young 28, and still
had a vigor for music and contemplated moving to New York and make the pilgrimage to
the jazz capitol of the world. I had always contemplated this move since before I had
graduated high school. What I had noticed about the jazz drummers and the community
of jazz musicians that were my age or younger is that if you had promise, an established
jazz artist would hire young drummers, and if these young drummers were luckily enough
to generate interest amongst other musicians and get more gigs it could be exactly what
I was looking for. However, there only rarely seemed to drummers who could build their
careers into anything beyond a two or three year window of opportunity. The exceptions
seemed to be the drummers that composed music and or led their own bands. Since, I
felt I wouldn’t be ready to do those type of things, I decided to follow through with my
While at San Francisco State, I was able to study with Dave Rosenthal (SF Ballet
Percussion), Akira Tana and Andrew Speight. I learned many things about jazz and
drumming from these gentlemen. I also was lucky to find players at State to play jazz
with while studying the various instrumental foundation classes, keyboard classes and
voice classes I took for my major. I felt that my study at this time was amazing. I was
practicing in a more focused way and connecting with teachers that had years of
experience playing music around the world.
During this time I was still playing gigs and recording music with Dayna Stephens, Susan
Getz, David Ewell and David Michel-Ruddy. Prior to graduating, I had to give a senior
recital to attain my degree as a music education major. I’m probably one of the few music
teachers to graduate from SanFrancisco State to give a senior recital like the one I gave.
For my senior recital I played 20 minutes of unaccompanied classical percussion pieces
on marimba and tympani and played a 40 minute set of jazz that I had arranged focusing
on standards with the word moon in the title or in the lyrics of the songs (i.e It’s Only A
Paper Moon, Fly Me To The Moon, etc). https://www.youtube.com/watch?
When I finished up the program for my BM in Music Education I felt confident with my
skills entering the work force as a music educator. I spent a great deal of time practicing
my percussion skills and I spent a great deal of time on wind instruments. I knew I
wanted to provide the opportunities I was given as a young musician in grade school,
and the only way that would be possible would to adequately understand how each
modern band instrument worked. Luckily, I had been asking all of my horn playing friends
over the years questions about their instruments from as early as my Chico days with the
As I was nearing the completion of my degree I had met my wife Monica Nguyen at San
Francisco State. We first meet in the Orchestra at State. She was the first chair cellist in
the orchestra and I was the tympanist. She invited me to a party and we immediately
developed a relationship that has been the best thing that has happened to me in my life.
We had our first child, Anastasia in February 2005. While I was earning my credential at
San Francisco State, I was teaching private lessons at a studio in San Jose, California.
My friend and colleague Sameer Gupta had asked me to take over his private lesson
studio at SJG School of Music. Our second child Ignacio was born in December 2006.
My typical day was to drive from San Jose to Palo Alto, spend 4-5 hours with my master
teachers David Brigham and Vivian Beadreau and their 300+ band students. Then drive
to San Francisco State from night classes from 6-10 pm. Then drive back to San Jose.
My first job as a music teacher began in August 2007 at South San Francisco. Luckily we
moved closer so my daily commute wasn’t nearly as bad. At South City I learned quite a
bit about how to motivate music students to make the best possible music they could. I
was lucky to have had that experience right away. I realized just how much work it takes
to run an active program that travels and competes in local festivals. I was 31 and had
two kids a full-time band director job in an area that I could still play music with great
players. I was very lucky.
In August of 2009 I moved our family back to San Jose to make our commute even less
and be around Monica family that lived there. It seemed that my family was isolated in
the peninsula without family and the support system that is necessary when a parent is
pulling long hours as a music director. I’ve been actively directing part-time at University
Preparatory Academy with three bands, one band at Redwood Middle School and
privately in drum and percussion lesson at SJG School of Music. Starting in 2012, I have
been making an attempt to play more gigs. Some of the musicians I play with are Ben
Torres (Pacific Mambo Orchestra), Cyril Guirard, Brian Ho, John Shifflet, The Cafe Stritch
My wife Monica is now an English teacher in San Jose and our kids are entering the 5th
and 3rd grads at their school.
Hoping to reestablish my musical associations from before I entered the teaching
profession, I have recorded my first album under my name called “Pomponio”. It features
the amazingly wonder Warren Wolf on marimba and vibraphone, the remarkable Joel
Behrman on trumpet, The feisty Howard Wiley on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones,
the formidable Matthew Clark on piano, the wise man John Shifflet on double bass, the
groovin’ John Santos on percussion and myself on a Yamaha drums and a plethora of